If we are strictly accurate, there is no film censorship in Britain today. This may surprise you, especially if you have heard of the big problems encountered by films like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” (a rumoured TWENTY minutes of cuts required by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)), but there is no obligation upon a film company to submit its product for certification. Virtually all do so though, and will make the cuts necessary to ensure the film gets the ‘right’ classification.

When it comes to cinema showings the BBFC is purely an advisory body. They classify films, or can refuse a certificate altogether, but the final decision on whether a film can be seen or not rests with the local council who can overrule the BBFC, if they see fit, as has happened recently in some areas of the country with “The Last Temptation of Christ”. However, they will normally agree with the BBFC and will not permit uncertificated films to be shown.

There are some important exceptions to these rules. One is the private cinema club, which can show films that have not been passed by the BBFC to it’s members (presumably they have to be over 18). The legal technicalities of why they should be exempt are a mystery to me – my entire judicial experience is two years sharing a flat with a student lawyer – but I’m quite willing to accept the benefits!

The opposite is true when it comes to videos. Here, the BBFC are not just advisory, but are the regulatory body – it is an offense, punishable by quite severe fines or even a jail sentence, to sell or hire videos that have not received a certificate. This came in via the Video Recordings Act of 1983 and was responsible for the disappearance of “Cannibal Ferox”, “I Spit On Your Grave” and a huge number of totally unmemorable porno films from the shelves of your local friendly video shop.

The BBFC do not apply the same standards to cinema films as it does to video releases, which causes endless anguish to fans who eagerly rent or buy a copy of their favourite film only to find that half the bits they remembered with great fondness have been removed to get the film passed. Even more is likely to be lost if the film is shown on television ( with the remarkable exception of “The Thing”, which made it onto ITV with its effects intact, only missing the odd swear-word here and there ) – more on this later.

The most glaring point of contradiction is that it is only films that have to go through the certification process. There is no similar system for books ( can you imagine the furore if a scheme was set up through which a government organisation would monitor all written works? ) – there is nothing to stop anyone from publishing a book containing stills cut from films, although the obscenity laws could be invoked ( but when was the last time you heard of a book being seized because of it’s violent, rather than sexual, nature? ).

Another problem is that the censors rely heavily on images rather than attitudes. To their credit, the situation here is not as bad as in some places where the system is almost a ‘scorecard’ one, with so many points for a decapitation, so many for a “shit”, with the total giving the certificate, or the cuts required for a certificate. Here, the reputation of the director is taken into account, which is why films like “The Fly” and “Hellraiser” were passed uncut (for cinema release), but neither Cronenberg nor Barker are immune, with “Videodrome” being hit especially heavily on video, and Clive Barker not being overly optimistic about the chances of “Hellbound” [see review]. Even if the scenes are not at all gratuitous and the attitude is admirable, the image is the thing.

Counter examples are possible. A graphic portrayal of someone being sliced up by telegraph wires into five or six sections would not normally be allowed, but when it’s in a Tom & Jerry cartoon, no-one seriously wants a ban.

One problem with censoring by attitude is that it is rather more difficult to censor a film’s attitude than if it is images that are considered undesirable – you can’t change the feeling of a film by trimming a few scenes. This means you have to ban films entirely, and you are then onto pretty dangerous ground in a democracy.

I don’t think that any image is capable of causing an anti-social act in any sane individual, and that even in a madman, it is just as likely to be a ‘normal’ image that tips the balance as any sex or violence. Case in point; remember John Hinckley Jr, the guy who tried to assassinate Pres. Reagan a few years back? Who did he claim as his ‘justification’? Jodie Foster – to my knowledge SHE hasn’t appeared in any video nasties.

However, there can be no doubt that images can affect people, as is clearly shown by what happened when news reports of the Ethiopian disaster led to a massive wave of public concern and charity. Almost all adults are capable of telling fact from fiction, but I still feel that even totally fictitious scenes, whether on TV, in the cinema or in a book, can still alter your viewpoint, though to a much lesser degree naturally.

To the vast majority of people, this is no problem. They have a wide enough variety of ‘input’ that the overall effects tend to balance out – any ‘anti-social’ effects of watching “Rape is Nice”, are cancelled by everyday input from TV, newspapers, etc telling you ‘Rape is NOT Nice’. This attitude, by the way, also negates the argument which asks why it is alright for the censors to see a film, but not alright for us. The danger does not lie in watching a broad range of films, but if you watch nothing but hard-core sadistic sex, it’s bound to alter your viewpoint.

So what should be censored? The two main areas deserving of consideration are violence and sex. We’ll take these in order and start with violence. There are several points which I’d like to see considered:

  • i) Is the violence by people on people? This is the ‘fantasy’ aspect, of cartoons and many horror films – people will find it very difficult to imitate a film like ‘Re-Animator’!
  • ii) How are the people commiting the acts shown? If the heroes are seen to be violent, it is more likely to make people think that violence is in some way acceptable than if violent people are depicted as ‘bad’. The ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ films seem to me to be on dodgy ground here, even if Freddy is an anti-hero, people identify with him more than his victims.
  • iii) The reality of the violence, and the attitude with which it is shown. If we showed the REAL effects of a shotgun wound, I think it would have a BENEFICIAL effect ; most people would take it a lot more seriously. At the other extreme, when violence is clearly not real, when it descends into slapstick, I doubt if anyone’s attitude will change. If violence is depicted ‘casually’, like any other everyday occurence, people will start accepting it, instead of it being a shocking event.
This is an anti-censorship cartoon which appeared in The Film Mercury magazine circa 1926.

Only when all three guidelines are violated show a film be considered to be possibly worth banning – Laurel and Hardy fail i) & ii), but are clearly such pure slapstick that they easily pass iii). Some more examples prove extremely interesting. ‘Rambo’ fails the lot, while virtually all horror films pass at least the third section – part of their horrific nature is to show unpleasant things such as the result of violence – and many are also detached enough from reality to let them through the first as well. This seems about right to me, as I personally find it very disturbing that films which seem to me to ‘glory in slaughter’ and advocate thoughtless violence as a solution to all problems, are passed with no cuts and a 15 certificate, while horror films, even those clearly based in fantasy, and where the violence is depicted REALISTICALLY, are continually sliced ‘n’ diced by the men with the scissors.

Sex is, if anything, an even more touchy area – the range of opinions on the subject is enormous. Some countries are very touchy about sex, for example the United States, while others are very liberal – France shows hard-core pornography on TV. I tend to the conservative (small c!) point of view, not least because 95% of sex scenes are totally gratuitous, but a lot of people confuse sex and nudity – we should remember there IS a difference! However, I can’t get all worked up about it, probably because I find most sex films pretty dull!

TV and cinema have different standards of what can be shown, which can provoke the occasional howl of outrage when the censoring is less than subtle, but from a moral,rather than artistic, point of view I can see why it’s necessary. Cinema is both an active and controlled entertainment, in that it takes an effort to go to your local Odeon (it’s difficult to accidentally see a film), and the owners can prevent children from seeing films meant for adults. This removes the risk of being accidentally ‘offended’ by something that exists with TV (although I haven’t yet seen anything I found offensive – perhaps I’m watching the wrong programs?) and also corrupting the young and innocent.

The situation is considerably more delicate when we consider television made FOR children, where the viewers are more easily influenced and are seeking role-models. If you watch TV on a Saturday morning, and see ‘He- Man, Master of the Universe’ or his sister ‘She-Ra, Princess of Power’, you’ll see casual violence by the hero/ines on a scale that far surpasses most programmes for adults (with the possible exception of professional wrestling). Although these programmes are clearly not a representation of suburban life in the 1980’s (unless you live in a very different suburb from me!), children are less capable of telling the difference between fact and fiction. Although there are many worthwhile and perfectly harmless programs on TV I don’t like to ponder what might happen when the children weaned on He-man grow up…

I fear this piece has raised more questions than it has answered. I’ve neatly avoided important issues like the morality of censorship in a democracy, but hopefully this piece will stimulate some of you out there to think about this important topic, before it’s too late…